What Now For The 2010 Diamondbacks?

The Five Stages of Diamondbacks Grief

  1. Denial. "It's still early in the season. We're only a few games out."
  2. Anger. "What the hell was AJ Hinch thinking, putting Juan Gutierrez into a tied game?"
  3. Bargaining. "Hey, we just traded for Dontrelle Willis!"
  4. Depression. "The only thing in the loss that surprised me, was my total lack of surprise."
  5. Acceptance. "Now, about that 2011 roster..."

I think I pretty much went through all five stages during yesterday's defeat, albeit perhaps in a somewhat different order. Still, one-third of the baseball schedule is now out of the way: and, with it, basically the Diamondbacks' season. It seems an appropriate point to look at 2010. In place of the scheduled look at why Conor Jackson still appears to be suffering from valley fever, after the jump is a more general piece. Warning: it'll be long, a bit ranty and more unfocused than my usual, keenly-honed analysis. Numbers take may or may not include Wednesday's game, depending on the paragraph.

[Now with a poll. Which I forgot to put on the original post. It's similar answers as the previous one on the bullpen woes - but is now expanded to cover the entire team...]

To quote the great baseball analyst, David Byrne, "You may ask yourself - well, how did I get here?" There is no single reason for the disappointing and frustrating start to the year. The absence of Brandon Webb. An injury to Miguel Montero. The ineffectiveness [until Wednesday night] of Dan Haren. Disappointing seasons by Justin Upton and Conor Jackson. But, the over-riding reason is that our anticipated set-up man and closer, Juan Gutierrez and Chad Qualls, are now 0-7 with a combined ERA of exactly nine, having allowed 36 earned runs in 36 innings.

Wretched as their performances appear to be have been, there is actually an argument to be made that those two have simply pissed off the baseball gods, to an unparalleled degree. Qualls' BABIP is positively freakish - at .462, it's the highest in the major-leagues for any pitcher with six IP, and 164 points above the MLB average. That has to correct itself. Last year, Qualls worked 52 innings, and the top BABIP of anyone with fifty or more IP was eighty points less than Chad's current number [Daisuke Matsuzaka, .382.]

Similarly for Gutierrez. If his season were to end today - say, if a posse of masked individuals in Sedona Red were to ambush him in a downtown car-park and go all Tonya Harding on his knee - his home-run rate would be of remarkable levels. Only one pitcher in baseball history has allowed ten home-runs in fewer innings: Joel Bennett of the 1999 Phillies, did it in 17.0 innings, four outs quicker than Juan Gone.

But 25% of all fly-balls he has allowed have left the park - league average is 7.2%, and that's another number over which a pitcher has limited control - even Yusmeiro Petit is only at 11.5% in his home-run happy career. What we are seeing at work here is nothing more than cold, hard, regression. Last season, Gutierrez allowed only two long-balls in 71 innings of work, an HR/FB rate of just 1.9%. That was just as unsustainable as the current number - but putting everything together. Gutierrez's career number is now...8.0%, almost in line with the MLB average.

Painful though it is, one can thus see why the team has not abandoned hope and dumped Gutierrez on waivers, or yanked Qualls from the closer role. They shouldn't be this bad. We may mock them for quotes like, "I don't know. I feel like I'm making good pitches. I really just can't explain it right now. It's one of those things." But being a baseball player is a curious job, because your performance is often due as much to luck as your own skills. Imagine working in an office, where your annual performance review involves you rolling a dice.

That said, there's still a point where one has to question AJ Hinch's use of them. I doubt there's a single D-backs fan whose heart did not sink into their boots when Gutierrez entered Monday's game in the tenth, with the score tied 0-0, or for whom the walk-off homer hit by the second batter was not entirely predictable. As the old saying goes, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." How many games does Gutierrez have to lose the team before he is relegated to mop-up duty? Apparently the answer is now "at least five."

Even if they both resume their 2009 form immediately, this season is over for the Diamondbacks, with very little or no hope of post-season baseball. CoolStandings.com gives the team a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs. That's odds of one in a thousand. More prosaically, even simply to avoid finishing the year with a losing record, Arizona would need to go 61-47 the rest of the way - that's equivalent to a 92-win pace over a full season, above even the most optimistic preseason projection. Barring that, we're looking at another losing season, and at the current pace, it's one which will quite possibly be worse than 2009.

This makes the signing of Dontrelle Willis somewhat strange - not that we gave up anything of significance for him, or will be paying an extortionate amount in salary. But Willis is only under contract through the end of the season: given, as noted above, this is (another) lost year, what are we trying to accomplish with the move? One suspects there is something more to it, for 2011 or beyond. Maybe we said to Willis something like, "Ok, you really want to come to Arizona? Fine. We'll trade for you. But you need to agree to give us a team option for 2011 at $X." That way, if he sucks, we cut ties, no damage done. But if he rebounds, we get a starter for next season at below market-value.

"We know something has to be done. We've been grossly under-performing now for five plus months and it's just not fair to the fans, it's not fair to the organization."
   -- Derrick Hall on KTAR's Doug & Wolf

The above quote explains the frustration fans feel with the team. It dates from May 7th, last year, just after the firing of Bob Melvin. The team's record since then? 78-109. It becomes increasingly difficult for those in charge of the team to retain credibility, in the face of the gap between their statements and on-field performance. Not to pick on Hall - he's just the most visible - but the pre-season claim that, "Our bullpen is much improved with depth.... Juan Gutierrez, who has been outstanding this spring, in addition to Bob Howry, Esmerling Vasquez, Blaine Boyer and Chad Qualls, should provide great relief," has proven to be right up there with other woefully inaccurate predictions.

I think the problem is a perception, since 2007, that the team was on the edge of being competitive, and only needed minor tweaks. That led to the trade for Dan Haren, mortgaging the future (Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez most notably) for the present. But the team is 34 games under .500 since then, well short of on the edge of anything. I'm not saying there was any deliberate deceit involved, but after hearing "this can be our year" for three straight seasons, yet it turns out to be far from it, fans are understandably fed-up. There's a reason my sig is now "It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand."

The curious thing is, the series in Los Angeles was one of the most enthralling set of baseball games I've ever followed, just for sheer excitement and tension. As a neutral, it would have been absolutely fascinating stuff. A trio of one-run contests, two of them going to extra-innings? Hell, no visiting team since 1970 had shut-out LA in Dodger Stadium for the first 13.2 innings of a game. That's pretty damn good. Thinking so is probably a good sign that I have indeed reached a Zen-like state of tranquility with regard to the Diamondbacks 2010 season. Hope has been extinguished. Now there is only despair, if you like. And I can stand that - or, at least, find myself at peace with it.

If the team needs to rebuild rather than reload, tell us. If there are going to be a couple of lean years, then bite the bullet and tell us. Face it, the casual fans have already been burned off this team by 26 months of losing baseball. Oh, they'll no doubt keep sniping, regardless, over on AZCentral.com [the place whose major contribution to the team was to convince Jeff Moorad that extending Eric Byrnes was a Really Good Idea...] The Nattering Nabobs there won't be truly happy until Luis Gonzalez is playing left-field, dressed in purple, while Jerry C's Deferred Salary Balance accumulates at the rate of the National Debt. Not a route anyone with a developed frontal-lobe wants to go.

So is that the scent of smoke from an imminent fire-sale? Some of the comments in today's Republic make it seem likely, particularly Hall's statement, ""We can't keep going down the same path and adding a piece here and there to this team that has not had success recently." Ken Kendrick echoes the sentiment: "You have to look hard at the concept of the core that we were trying to build around and question whether that core is as strong a core as we thought it would be." And one wonders whether the  "core group of young guys" to which Kendrick refers, perhaps includes Josh Byrnes and AJ Hinch?

Certainly, Kendrick saying, "When you're performing poorly it's not one person - we're all responsible" is hardly a ringing endorsement for his GM. And just as Bob Melvin was booted, in part, because he was not on board with the Josh Byrnes approach, the fortunes of AJ Hinch seem tightly-bound to Byrnes. Any new GM would probably want the same thing: a manager fully on-board with his philosophy. So the changes which seem almost certain to take place, may not be limited to on-field personnel. If I were pitching coach Mel Stottelmyre in particular, I'd be ensuring my resume was up-to-date [and it might be best if he pretended to have been on vacation in Borneo for all of 2010]

If there is going to be a wholesale clearout of the team, there are certainly no shortage of candidates. Chris Snyder must be at the top of any list, as soon as Miguel Montero comes back, with Texas the obvious candidate looking for a catcher at this point. Adam LaRoche seems also to have a "Make an offer" tag on his back, as well as whichever one of Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson are deemed surplus to requirements and/or gets the best return. Rodrigo Lopez too. That would seem to clear out all the unnecessary "deadwood," by which I mean the players for whom we would seem to have adequate replacements, or who probably won't be around in 2011 next season.

That would still seem to fall somewhat short of the wholesale carnage implied in the above comments - it's not really much more than was done last season. Where things will get interesting is if, as has been suggested, we are now contemplating trading Haren. If that happens, then it would appear there are few on the team who can be considered "safe," since it would suggest we are punting at least 2011, and looking further down the line, so only those who will be sure to contribute in 2012 and beyond would be safe. That'd be Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, Tony Abreu, Miguel Montero, Chris Young, and perhaps Mark Reynolds.

The season may, for competitive purposes, be over. But I think that perhaps the most interesting phase of things may just be beginning, as we see exactly what those running the team are prepared to do, to back up their strong, and undeniably resonant rhetoric.

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